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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. He is also an acting and dialogue coach. 



Incomparable Shachin Dev Burman: HQ Chowdhury’s labour of love, about the man and his music

Incomparable Shachin Dev Burman: HQ Chowdhury’s labour of love, about the man and his music

It is not often that one gets to hear about a book and its author first, and gets to spend some enriching time with the author afterwards, before getting an autographed copy of his book, as a gift. And to think this happened 2,500 km away from my city of Mumbai, in the capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, at Chowdhury’s posh guest house, seems almost unreal. Reading Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman (SDB) was no less rewarding and enriching, Burman being among the topmost film music and non-film music composers/singers who emerged in the 30s and continued to work till the early 70s, till illness, and finally death, snatched him away, in 1975.

Invited to serve on the FIPRESCI (International Association of Film Critics) India’s Jury at the Dhaka International Film Festival (DIFF), in February, I was given a reference to HQ by Archisman "Archie" Mazumder, a musicologist and keen student of both Hindustani and Bengali music. Archie was part of the ZOOM vintage music group, Rewind, (now renamed Nostalgiaana) where I am a permanent invitee and have been part of three of its live shows. Archie’s wife Radhika was studying the art of voice-overs from me when this invitation came. He knew with HQ and felt that he would be the ideal person for me to meet on my first visit to that country and share music notes. Perhaps the two of us could even go to Comilla, where SDB lived from birth till his late teens.

Realising that I would need extra time to spend with HQ and also to see a bit of Bangladesh on my own, I booked my return ticket for the 28th of February, four days after the festival was to end, while most other invitees were to leave either on the 25th or earlier. But my meeting took place during the festival itself, because HQ avoids taking his car out except on Fridays and Saturdays, the official holidays in Bangladesh, on account of massive traffic jams. Dhaka has an estimated population of 2 crores (2,00,000,00), about the same as Mumbai. So, it was on a Friday, I think, that he called me over. I found him to be tall, in his early 70s, with age beginning to catch-up, but still quite fit, and saw obvious signs of a once highly presentable persona. In addition, he was hospitality personified. When I asked him what his initials stood for, he replied, “Humayun Qader. But nobody calls me Humayun or Humayun Qader. I am HQ to everybody. You too can call me HQ.” It was this HQ who took me to the HQ (headquarters) of SDB, in Comilla, a 2-2 ½ hour drive from Dhaka, now renamed Cumilla.

Faruq, HQ and the writer

Accompanying us was HQ’s childhood friend, Faruq. A driver, old faithful of HQ, was at the wheels. Along the way, he told us that it was the song ‘Rula key gayaa sapnaa mera’, from Jewel Thief (1967), which he heard in a sponsored programme on Radio Ceylon, that had him mesmerised, and he started digging into SDB’s repertoire, both Bengali and Hindi. Then there was the Comilla connection. HQ dug deep, travelled far and spent several years to accumulate material for his labour of love. Moreover, he has spent a lot of time and effort to get the small road next to SDB's home renamed as S.D. Burman Road, without success.

Shachin Kumar, which was what he was usually called, was a prince from the ruling family of Tripura, but his parents had to flee the capital, Agartala, and take refuge in his father Nabadip’s Chartha, Comilla (it was part of Tripura then) house, fearing a court coup and possible murder. It was there that he was born, and grew-up. It was commonly believed that everybody in Tripura was a singer. The flute was his first instrument, and the pond around their mansion, his favourite haunt, to practice playing, often in the company of Kazi Nazrul Islam, who was a lyricist-composer, while SDB was a composer-singer. The flute was of the ‘Tiperra banshi’ kind. Gradually, he also picked tabla-playing, while still at school.

His first folk music gurus were his domestic help, Madhav, an expert on the Ramayana, and Anwar, his fishing guide, who was like a shadow, from morning till dusk. Anwar played the ‘dotara’ (a two-stringed instrument). He used to sing Anwar’s songs in the school’s tiffin-break, in the open field, under the old banyan tree, by the Dharmasagar lake. Anwar’s songs were spiritual, a Bhatiyali collection, with no meend, sargam, loi or taan, simple sweet words, and straight from the heart. To both of them SDB was ‘chhoto korta’ (young master).

Born in 1906 (some sources suggest 1903), SDB passed his matriculation examination in 1920, from Comilla. Skipping classes, he often travelled far and wide, to hear Bhatiyali, Baul and various other kinds of folk music, and even joined the troupes in their tours. His constant companion was Anwar, and the two travelled either on foot or by boat. Their next door neighbour in Comilla was a Navaab, and SDB could hear the dances and singing of Tavaifs at his mansion. The Navaab took a liking to the boy, and presented him with his first harmonium.

Music and studies co-existed for the teenaged SDB, who arrived in Calcutta in 1925, with his father, to do an M.A. in English Literature. But he was quite shaken and disturbed by the big city, and gave-up his studies to pursue music full-time. He soon became a great performer, a singer-composer, both on stage and off-stage. ‘Kana Keshto’, alias K.C. Dey, a blind singer who lost his eye-sight at 16, became Shachin Kumar’s first Guru. Dey was the paternal uncle of Manna Dey, who had taken lessons from as many as ten Gurus and Ustaads (the Urdu term for Guru). SDB took K.C. Dey to Comilla to sing in a stage production of Seeta, wherein he gave the singing voice of Rama. Shachin Kumar did not sing, but bringing star-performer K.C. Dey to Comilla turned him into a local hero. Meanwhile, he picked up a taste for tennis and football.

Next, Shachin Kumar took K.C. Dey’s permission to learn from Khalifa Badal Khan, one of Dey’s own Ustaads, who was already 90 years old, but fit as a fiddle. In 1928, Shachin Kumar sang two of his own compositions on the radio station run by the Indian Broadcasting Company, the precursor of All India Radio. The programme was a hit, and he was paid Rs. 10, which, to him, at that point of time, felt like Rs. 1,00,000. He continued singing there, till 1930, until the company went bankrupt, and was succeeded by the Indian State Broadcasting Corporation, and in 1935, ISBC took on a new shape and name, as All India Radio. Shachin Kumar continued to be a radio singer till 1936.

On record, his music was first released in 1932, on the Hindusthan Records label, No. H11 78 r.p.m. record was priced at Re. 1 and 12 annas (16 annas made a rupee). The numbers on the record were ‘Dakley kokil roj bihaney’ written by Hemendra Kumar Roy, on Side 1, and ‘E pathey aaj esho priyo’, by Sailen Roy, on the reverse side. It was a Bhatiyali Khambaaj (Khamaaj) combo, and an instant hit. His next two songs, ‘Bodhu elo modhu ratey’ and ‘Tumi to bodhu jano’ were also released on record. ‘Tumi to bodhu jaano’ was a reworking of a ghazal by the Comilla-based singer, Mohammed Hussain aka Khusro Mian, ‘Kis kis adaasey tooney jalvaa dikhakey maaraa’. HQ says in the book that this record will remain in gold in the history of the evolution of Modern Bengali music. Both Shachin Kumar and his close friend K.L. Saigal had been rejected earlier by the rival music publishing company, HMV.

Disappointment came next, when Pankaj Kumar Mullick recorded a song in Shachin Kumar’s voice for the film Yahoodi Ki Ladki. The film was in Urdu, and Shachin Kumar’s Urdu left a lot to be desired. So, the song was rejected and re-recorded in the voice of Pahadi Sanyal, another Bengali, who had much better command over the language. Sanyal was also acting in the film, which was a K.L. Saigal starrer, with 19 songs, released in 1933. Sone 36 years later, an aging Pahadi Sanyal played the father’s role in Aradhana, which had music by SDB, and the back-ground song, ‘Kahe ko roye’ had Sanyal on screen, with SDB singing his own tune.

Although Shachin Kumar learnt from many Gurus and Ustaads, there has to be a special place for Vishmadev Chatterjee, who became his Guru in 1934. With the advent of playback in 1935, SDB got to re-use an already recorded song as his first film song, for a film called Sanjher Pidim (Bidrohi), which had music by K.C. Dey. That same year, he also recorded the number, ‘Nishitey jaiyo phulo boney’. Readers might recall its Hindi version, ‘Dheerey sey jaanaa bagiyan men’ and a parody of the same song in Kishore Kumar’s voice, for the film Chhupa Rustam. In 1935, he composed music and also appeared on screen as a singing beggar, with heavy make-up to conceal his identity, in the Urdu film Selimaa, directed by Madhu Bose and containing 10 songs.

SDB’s marriage took place on 10 February, 1938, and his bride was his student, Meera Das Gupta, a dancer who was learning music from him. The marriage drew mixed responses. They had one child, a son, Rahul Dev Burman, alias Tublu aka Pancham, later called RDB, born on 27 June 1939. SDB kept singing for films, but his non-film songs were better received. During 1940-44, SDB composed music for 10 of the 98 films released, while 28 other composers shared the other 88. Sardar Chandulal Shah of Ranjit Movietone, Bombay, sent for him in 1942. SDB preferred to stay in Calcutta. The next offer came in 1944, from Sashadhar Mukerji, Rai Bahadur Chunilal Kohli, Ashok Kumar and Gyan Mukherjee, who had all left Bombay Talkies and formed Filmistan. On the insistence of his good friend Sushil Majumder, who had already left Calcutta and joined Filmistan, he decided to move to Bombay, with his wife and son.

For the rest of the story, you will have to read the book, which includes the songs that RDB copied from his father’s compositions, which, in turn, were inspired from other sources. Why do I write SDB’s first name as Shachin? Because that is how he wrote it. Interestingly, one record, H-198, with the songs, ‘Mono dukhe mori re’ and ‘Praner probhu rohena praney’, a 78 r.p.m. disc, has the singer’s name spelt, Kumar Shachindra Deb Burman, B.A.

What you have read so far is about his early and formative years, ending with his decision to leave Calcutta for Mumbai, and that is the story that very few know, unless they have read HQ’s book. There is lots, and lots more, right until his passing away: tributes, anecdotes, controversies, etc. For fans of SDB, this book is essential reading. For those who appreciate old Hindi and Bengali music, it will add value to your library. And never mind the spelling and grammatical errors when it comes to Hindi/Urdu words. HQ lays no claim to being a literary genius in either language. The book’s availability is given below, but a word here about the man who a long, long time researching and writing it.

HQ Chowdhury is a sports (mainly cricket, but including athletics, badminton and table tennis), music and movie aficionado. He came to Calcutta and Bombay in the early to mid-70s, hoping to make it as an actor. That did not happen, but he saw more Hindi films in that period than he can count. After an Honours degree in Physics, he got diplomas from Germany, Japan and the UK in instruments related to Medical Imaging, Spectroscopy, Chromatography and Vacuum. After marketing these instruments for many years, the CEO of Plasma Plus has decided to call it quits. During his youth, he was a journalist, and the Dhaka Correspondent for Cine Advance, published from Calcutta. Befittingly, he was honoured with the S.D. Burman award by the Government of Tripura.

Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman was first published in 2011, and priced at Rs. 1,000. The latest edition has about 150 pages of extra text, and is even more invaluable, priced at Rs. 311 on Amazon:

It is also available on Books at Bahri:


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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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